For 45 minutes, without interruption for commercials or station breaks, Democrat Neil Abercrombie and Republican Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona answered host Boylan’s questions and ones submitted by the public. After a short clip from columnist Richard Borreca of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the same format applied to the Democrat Colleen Hanabusa and Republican Rep. Charles Djou.
Here’s Civil Beat’s take.
In his opening remarks Boylan pointed to recent polls that suggest both contests, as Boylan put it, are heading for a “photo finish.”
It was clear from the get-go that the candidates agreed. An urgency infused their response to questions, and especially in response to charges from each other.
In the governor’s race portion of the evening, Aiona and Abercrombie quickly tangled over how they would balance the state’s budget.
Abercrombie, playing to his public-sector unions base, said his lowest priority as governor would be to cut positions such as agricultural inspectors and historic preservation employees. They represent the vaunted “human capital” he’s always talking about investing in.
Aiona, playing to his core belief in fiscal responsibility, said he didn’t want to cut salaries and jobs but that the state simply didn’t have the revenue over the past several years due to the recession. Tough calls had to be made.
That led to an exchange over whether Hawaii is taking sufficient advantage of federal stimulus money for programs like education. Abercrombie said instructional days for school children — which the Democrat considers “sacrosanct” — were used as “bargaining chips” during the negotiations that resulted in furlough Fridays.
Aiona fired back that of course kids should not be bargaining chips but that the governor’s administration, the school board, the teachers union and lawmakers had to come to an agreement to settle the impasse.
After 15 minutes or so of this, Boylan — who rightly let the candidates go at each other several times, allowing for the kind of dialogue rarely seen in any debate this year — finally had to play referee and say, “Let’s stop a minute.”
But Duke and Neil (for that is what Boylan called them, which was entirely apropos for a studio set that consisted of a round table and coffee cups that one could find at a Williams Sonoma) quickly went at it again, this time over where the state could find the $190 million equivalent to the cost savings that came from the furloughs.
Because the candidates were at a round table, they had no choice but to look at each other, their eyes animated, their hands and fingers gesturing. There was no posturing for a studio audience; rather, this was a family argument.
Which isn’t to say that Duke and Neil are family.
As the night wore on, and as the intensity carried into the second half with Djou (Charles) and Hanabusa (Colleen), viewers were presented an unvarnished display of just how different these Democrats and Republicans are.
Near the end of the forum between the governor candidates, Aiona was bemoaning the idea of borrowing money from a federal government that operates on deficit spending and a growing debt.
That’s when Boylan (Dan) — a liberal man — interjected that under the second Bush administration the country entered two wars and cut taxes.
Duke directed the question back to Hawaii, his kuleana, and said it was about whether the state should borrow money to pay for labor costs — the single largest expenditure in Hawaii’s budget.
Neil pounced, bringing up FDR and the Democrats of old who found ways to put people to work.
Duke and Neil concluded their exchange with a passionate defense of their respective views on civil unions. While both candidates have spoken at length throughout the campaign about this issue — Duke would not sign a civil unions bill, Neil would — new life was breathed into it.
Duke actually pulled out a copy of House Bill 444 and read the section that says the same rights and responsibilities afforded marriage partners under state law would apply to same-sex couples in a civil union.
“It’s really a same-sex marriage bill,” he said, leaning forward on the table, his hands at times pressed together as if making a praying motion.
Neil responded by pointing out that Barack Obama’s parents could not get married in many states when they met in Hawaii in the early 1960s. He also observed that he agreed with the 1998 constitutional amendment that let Hawaii’s Legislature limit marriage to a man and a woman.
Then Neil brought up the Pearl Harbor attack, the interment of Japanese Americans and the fact that Dan Inouye supports civil unions — a big shout-out to Hawaii’s most crucial voter bloc.
Duke said he certainly did not embrace discrimination.
“You’re taking this out of context, you are making this an emotional issue,” he said to Neil.
When the 45 minutes were up, Dan said “It went too fast!”
It did. Good stuff always goes by fast.
The 45 minutes with Charles and Colleen was nearly as good and showed both candidates in top fighting form.
Dan asked Charles how he felt about the rise of the Tea Party and if he could assure Hawaii voters he would not be their “willing tool.”
Charles dodged it, but Dan followed up, forcing the Republican to say “I am not a member. I think they are too far right.”
Dan then asked both candidates whether they felt shamed “as human beings” with all the national money being spent in the 1st Congressional District race: “As good politicians and decent people, aren’t you sullied by this — letting other people buy elections for you?”
Colleen pointed out that a lot of the spending was independent of her campaign. Charles said he was not happy that national Democrats, in his view, have spent more than $700,000 to defeat him.
Colleen then said Karl Rove was bringing his PAC money into the state — beginning Friday, she said — to spend it against Colleen.
“Are you wiling to say that is wrong?” she asked.
“I am,” he replied.
Charles’ main point of the evening — indeed, all year — is that he brings political balance, fiscal responsibility and independence to Hawaii’s congressional delegation, particularly should Congress fall to Republicans.
Colleen’s main point is that Democrats like her just have much better ideas than Republicans when it comes to things like ending tax cuts for the rich and extending federal support such as unemployment benefits.
The PBS format was by design and came with its own promotional art — the (ahem) artwork, which is pictured on this page.
It showed Hawaii politics and politicians at their best, not afraid to take on their opponent or flash a little anger, but all in all keeping things pretty — well, civil.
“The format is civil discourse. Disarmingly simple — and yet the exchanges are sometimes profound,” said Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawaii President and CEO, in a promo for the show. “We should expect our leaders of differing perspectives to disagree in a civilized manner, and to truly listen instead of just waiting to speak. We ask that candidates show the sense of respect and fairness that governs normal conversation.”
Contrast that with the political scene from California to Florida, where negative advertising and acrimonious debate have reached new highs. Or lows.
The PBS program will be rebroadcast on Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., and will be available online beginning Friday morning.
It’s worth checking out. And broadcasting on C-SPAN.